ASTNA traditionally continues a series of interviews and publications about the state of the media in Azerbaijan  on the eve of the National Press Day. The expert on media issues, lawyer Alesker Mammadli answers the questions of ASTNA about the state of media freedom, the work of state structures with media in the information sphere, information support.

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Question: What difficulties have media structures and journalists faced in Azerbaijan over the past year when receiving information from government agencies? Is the work of state bodies in the information sphere transparent?

Answer: In Azerbaijan, systematically, including the last year, one of the biggest problems of the media is the issue of obtaining information. In particular, the provision of socially significant information has always been problematic. Journalists can make two types of requests: written and oral. Verbal requests are usually very simple. With such requests, they often easily get away from an informative answer. More problems arise with written requests, since a certain informativeness is required. According to the latest information, due to the unwillingness of the owner of the information to provide it, there was even an appeal to the Ombudswoman. The Ombudswoman has compiled more than 20 protocols and sent them to the relevant courts so that these requests are satisfied. Unfortunately, despite the fact that protocols were drawn up, many of them did not have information support. Some protocols sent to the court were not approved by the courts. In the matter of providing information, courts often protect structures rather than the media. This is a separate problem.

In 2023, we conducted monitoring of state structures (151 state structures, including state-owned enterprises) to ensure information transparency. It turned out that only 10-20% of information is provided, especially if it concerns economics, finance, tenders, procurement. 80-90% of this kind of data is not distributed. This demonstrates the attitude of these structures to transparency. But when it comes to general information (for example, information about structures, their functions, addresses, etc.), then this data is distributed by 100, sometimes by 95%.

Question: Why are government agencies generally stingy with information? Are they trying to hide something, or is it because they do not feel accountable to society?

Answer: This is not avarice; this is a concealment of information. They believe that if this information is leaked, this structure and its officials may become the subject of public discussions. If this information is made public, new discussions about governance may arise. And these discussions can become frightening these institutions, become a headache. An indirect reason for the non-proliferation of information is this. A few years ago there was a company that won 360 tenders in a year. It looks like the company won a tender a day. Of course, such questions generate serious public discussion. At the same time, the question of how fair and legitimate the process is put up for discussion.

Basically, this is what they are afraid of. And yet, many government agencies consider themselves accountable only to those who appoint them, and not to society. And here, the electoral system also has a problem. If officials or political persons are appointed by the will of one person, and not by election, and at the same time local self-government remains very limited, if all executive authorities are appointed structures, then accountability will not be to society, but to the appointee. This creates a greater fear than reporting to society, not to frighten, not to offend and not to incur the wrath of the person who appointed him.

Question: It turns out that state structures have created media close to themselves or have brought some of them closer to themselves and work only with them. What is the reason for such discrimination?

Answer: In fact, this trend is not new. After 2005, especially since the independent media began to gradually withdraw from the arena, their place was taken by the lured media. At first, the authorities allocated resources for this process through the State Support Fund for the Development of Mass Media. There are both legitimate resources and, of course, funds invisible to us and coming from the budget, which are sources that feed large agencies, including media organizations. And, unfortunately, to date, no resource is just information about the funds allocated from the state budget, including, apart from the standard funds issued by the Media Development Agency of Azerbaijan  in the last 1-2 years, we do not know what the rest of the income of any media structure, even the media structure, the founder of which is the state. They are not accountable.

Like, for example, Public TV, which, along with government allocations, has a 4-hour advertisement placed on the air. And it lasts 365 days. The same applies to AZTV, “Azertac” and other state-funded media structures. In particular, media funded from the state budget, the source and founder of which are state institutions, do not report their additional income. This is also the issue of transparency of state bodies, which we have just discussed. The lured media are engaged in propaganda, to put it mildly, PR of those who pay, as they say, "who pays, he orders music." And there can be no question of revealing information that can put them in a difficult position. Thus, these structures are also interested in having only PR or advertising. It is precisely because of this aspect that they push the information support of independent media and journalists to the background as much as possible. Basically, they tend to distribute information at their discretion.

Question: In what form, in accordance with the legislation, can state bodies be punished or punished for stinginess in providing information?

Answer: The right to access information is a constitutional right, and the Article 50 of the Constitution provides for freedom of information. Article 9 of the Law "On Access to Information" specifies the owners of information, and their duties are specified in the Articles 29-30. They must respond to both oral and written requests, as well as disseminate the information available to them. For this, the Article 374 of the Code of Administrative Offenses provides for liability. In accordance with this, responsibility is established for failure to provide or incomplete provision of a response to an information request. As already mentioned, legal control in this regard is entrusted to the Ombudswoman.

In recent years, an information department has been established in the Office of the Ombudsman. The head of this department can also draw up a report on state bodies that do not respond to the information request of journalists and do not even share information in accordance with the law, and ask them to be punished administratively. In this regard, unfortunately, nothing can be found in the reports of the Ombudswoman on the preparation of the protocol until 2020. Only this year, certain steps taken by the Ombudswoman in this direction are visible. Unfortunately, information about the State structure regarding the number of protocols leading to punishment and the obligations imposed on them is not open. We cannot indirectly get clear information about this.

Question: What can be done to ensure that state structures work normally in the field of information with the media, journalists, and citizens?

Answer: Practice shows that, in general, the work of state bodies with the media, journalists or citizens in terms of information support can still vary to a greater extent depending on individual qualities. For example, if an official dealing with information issues, the public relations department, media relations in a state structure is open to the public, if he comes from the media sphere, then he tries as much as possible to ensure that the reputation of the structure in which he works is positive, and also conveys certain information to the other side, because it's her right. In this regard, it is necessary to select officials of state bodies dealing specifically correctly with information issues, regulating relations with the public relations department, media. The importance they attach to media freedom should be clearly visible. They should also know that they have obligations to share information with the public. First of all, it should be a normal choice.

And, of course, the system must work correctly. In no case will any state structure and official be interested in providing information, knowing that there is no control over him. Consequently, both political and legal control should be strengthened here. Political control should be conducted through the control of higher authorities over lower ones. He must be both accountable and systematically conduct an audit, an audit in some form. There should also be judicial support. If there is no independent judicial support, no structure will strive for openness. Because even if there is legal responsibility and there is no prosecution, he will have practically nothing to avoid. From this point of view, judicial control is very important.

And the last important control is public control. Public control may be related, in particular, to the fact that civil society institutions and the media focus more actively on these issues and keep them on the agenda. Unfortunately, civil society and media in Azerbaijan are very weak. Therefore, the function of public control of mass media and civil society practically does not work. They must be corrected so that the control mechanisms are fully corrected.

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